Jesus was a storyteller, whose repertoire included the very effective use of parables, stories about the ordinary, which draw extraordinary illustrations meant to evoke contemplation and transformation.
Through parables, Jesus paints visual pictures of how God connects with us in the ordinary, how heaven's way could play out in earthly situations.
The parable of "The Good Samaritan" (Matthew 10:25-37) is a good example of Jesus' parables. But we need some background information to get the full meaning Jesus imparts.
To begin, Jesus' original audience would have identified with the Jewish victim, not the Good Samaritan. Samaritans were hated and loathed in First-Century Palestine. Also the priest and Levite would have been snickered at, as bureaucrats of Rome's temple elite government.
To get the impact of how this original context alters the story, consider this "updated" version of the story about a FEMA official; a politician; someone we loath; and a Palm Bay man in trouble:
A Palm Bay man was trapped in a hurricane surge, nearly drowned, he lay half-dead on a street. A FEMA official happened by, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So, too, a politician surveying the damage saw the man and passed by on the other side. But a member of the Taliban hiding in the area happened by; when he saw the man he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured medicine on them. Then he put him in the back of his van, brought him to a hotel room and took care of him. The next day he left, paying for the room and asking the hotel manager to take care of the man out of his own debit card.
Wow! That's a far cry from the sweet-neighbor-doing-a-good deed example that we usually take away from the story.
After the FEMA official and politician walk by, the ordinary progression we'd expect is a known rescuer type to appear, a familiar hero, maybe Bruce Willis or Tom Cruise passing by. But something extraordinary happens instead. A Taliban member (a Good Samaritan?), a hated and loathed person, shows up. Our hope for rescue (in the injured man's shoes) is replaced by anxiousness and confusion.
As we listen, the story is not going as expected. We have no clue as to the outcome.
Indeed, we fear that this Taliban fellow will stop as we lay there helpless - he is dangerous. And when he does stop, we worry for our health. And then when he moves in to help, we worry even more (Is he looking for a wallet? What's in the bottles? Will he run us over? Is he going to booby-trap, kill or maim us?) Then when he helps, gives us hospitality and pays for it, we worry for our reputation and what law enforcement officials and Homeland Security will think about us. It's a topsy-turvy tale.
This story, understood in this radical parabolic way, makes us think way outside the box. It's a mind-bending experience. So many questions are evoked. What does Jesus mean by having the hated rescue us? Where are the boundaries of compassion? Why do we feel guilty for thinking ill of a Taliban member or the Taliban in general? How is this the Empire of God?
How would we feel if we could not stop someone loathsome and hated from helping? Would we rather be dead than have his help?
Would we help a Taliban member laying on the street? Would we take the risk? Would we pay for his care?
In light of this story, how would we stack up against the hated person in the story? Could someone the cultural considers loathsome really be more humane than us? Are the loathsome supposed to be loved and allowed to love us?
Jesus' story in this light offers a new world view. It's a parable drawn from common life that arrests us by its strangeness, moves our mind to sufficient doubt about its application and leaves us wrestling about what it illustrates.
Can God actually be experienced through acts of compassion by someone we loathe and hate? ... And vice versa? That's sure not our earthly experience or expectation.
But, wait a second, Jesus left us - and still gives to us - peace that is not of this world. Jesus calls us to be good neighbors, radically good neighbors, loving neighbors. Are we to be so radical we love even those we are supposed to hate?
Like it or not, that sure sounds like the Gospel to me.
Author's Note: The ideas in this column were inspired by Steve Patterson's wonderful book, "The God of Jesus."
The Rev. Scott Elliott is the pastor at Riviera United Church of Christ in Palm Bay. Visit Riviera UCC's website at rivieraucc.org. and his vlog at http://www.youtube.com/user/AGodVlog?feature=guide.